[Babble Interviews] Nicole Blair

I’ve been excited about this interview for a while.  In fact, when I first conceived of posting interviews on my blog, Nicole Blair was high on my list to pursue.  I’ve often told Dr. Jay that if we still lived in Austin, I would love to be working at Studio 512.  For free.  She’s just that cool.

I met Nicole through friends (in a wine club, when life was so different) in Austin while I was in grad school.  I always liked to mix it up with people not associated with architecture while I was a student, and in grad school I was friends with some business school ladies who did things like tail-gate and participate in a wine club.  Here I was, socializing with my “not architecture” friends, and I meet Nicole Blair, one of Austin’s hippest designers.  Of course.  And I’m so glad I did.  Nicole started her own firm called Studio 512 (the numbers refer to Austin’s area code) and was nice enough to show me around her office one day a few years ago.  It was immediately evident how hard she works.  She really gives her all to her clients.  What I hope you can tell from this interview is just how genuine and original she is.  Her solutions to design-problems are thoughtful and usually very budget-conscious.  She is approachable and makes people feel that way about her architecture.  I have so much respect for Nicole and everything she has accomplished.  She did not fail to impress me with this interview, and I’ll know you’ll be impressed, too.  ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.

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I grew up in Austin, TX. After taking an 11 year hiatus to study, work and travel, I returned to Austin and began Studio 512, a design firm focused on finding functional, unique solutions to architectural design problems. While away I earned degrees from Cornell University (B. of Science in Textiles and Apparel) and Rice University (Masters of Architecture), traveled abroad to Paris and Florence, and worked for Architects Peter Eisenman and Robert Stern in New York City. It’s been a treat to return to my hometown and help shape the place that first shaped me. 

How did you get interested in architecture?

I visited an architecture booth at a career fair in Junior High School. I was mesmerized by a crisp, white scale model of a commercial building and thought a field which mixed the arts, science, and math was a good fit for me. The presenter said Architecture was historically male dominated, but was becoming a promising career path for women. I knew in that moment (one I still remember well) that I would pursue architecture as a career.

What projects are you currently working on?

A guest house for a film-maker, a showroom for a stone company, a master bath suite renovation, a new billiards/entertainment/wine tasting space for a family of five, and a 1920’s bungalow renovation and addition.

[some images of Nicole’s work, past and present]

The Off Shoot Renovation Project

The Off Shoot Renovation Project

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bathroom long from closet

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What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?

I think a lot of folks aren’t aware of the amount of time it takes to thoughtfully conceive of, design, draw, and detail a new house or other design project (commercial, civic, etc). The design process for even a small residential remodel typically spans months and includes dozens of meetings and communications between me and the client, contractors, possible subcontractors, material suppliers, city and neighborhood officials, etc.

What’s your most memorable project?

A non-traditional fence I built with my Dad between the back of a property and an alley. We strung 2 diameters (colors) of common weed eater wire in a woven pattern between posts with eyes. The fence’s design allows the possibility to change the woven material and pattern over time. Suitably, the design also eliminates the need for weed eating along the fence line as the wire is flexible enough for a lawn mower push the fence out (or in) to mow directly under the wire. It’s also fun to bounce against.

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Tell us about some of the community projects you are involved in.

For me, involvement in community building projects and lending time and design expertise to non-profit efforts is critical to being a responsible design professional. On average Studio 512 is involved in one pro bono project per year. This year we worked with The Austin Museum of Art and students from The University of Texas at Austin to build interactive displays in their FamilyLab to illustrate concepts from their current exhibition: “Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller”. The UT students engaged in laser cutting, CNC routing, sewing, painting, woodworking, and video to create “Card City”, “Exploring Ergonomics”, “Fold your own Miniature Chair”, pattern printing and other projects for museum visitors. Last year we helped The Rude Mechanicals Theater Company design and build a theater practice space for their Grrl Action program.

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What architect or architects inspire you and why?

Herzog and DeMeuron’s creative material facades and forms. Zumthor’s primal, spiritual, simply and clearly detailed buildings. Gaudi’s whimsy and imagination. The diffused natural light streaming into a museum gallery designed by Renzo Piano. MVRDV’s clever site planning, space making, stacking techniques. Jeanne Gang’s success as a female architect.

What is your favorite city for architecture?

I have had the privilege to live in Florence, Paris, Austin, Houston, and New York City, each of which have their own unique charm and appeal (yes, even Houston has attractive qualities which make it a vibrant, satisfying city to visit and live). I have visited cities throughout Europe and North America as well: London, LA, Marfa, Madrid. What excites me is experiencing their differences. Traveling along wide grand blocks in Barcelona then meandering through narrow, winding streets within Florence gives me reference to favor them both. I find joy in discovering new cities: considering their scale, topography, density, materiality, playfulness, efficiency, relative to other places I’ve been.

What work of architecture would you most like to visit?

If I could hop on a plane tomorrow, I would travel to Beijing to see The Nest by Herzog and DeMeuron.

If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?

When I was a student I couldn’t imagine following any other career path, but now that I am an adult, I think I would enjoy being a chef, an event planner, a curator/gallerist, gift/ paper shop owner, or perhaps even a cinematographer.

What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?

Just after graduating from Rice, I complained to John Casbarian, the Assistant Dean of the School of Architecture, that I had not been taught enough practical skills to be productive in an architecture firm. He said this was a common complaint for recent graduates but that when he spoke with students when they returned for their 10 or 20 year reunions, they said they missed having time to focus on architectural theory and thinking more open-endedly about our built environment and how we live in it. I graduated 8 years ago and already have begun to see John’s point. Today, I would suggest that art history and hand drawing courses be required of all students seeking architectural degrees. I will likely answer differently in a couple of years.

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>Looks like we made it

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Well, good readers, Mark and I survived the trip down to Richmond last week to tour the Rice house by Richard Neutra.  I’d even go as far as saying we thrived rather than just survived!  I’ll spare you the details of the early morning drive south, other than to say that there was a necessary outfit change just prior to the tour and I am so thankful for a nearby Starbucks– not for its coffee but for the availability of a changing table in the bathroom.  [Side note:  fold-out changing tables in public bathrooms are great, but can we please start demanding that a hook be available nearby to hold the diaper bag?!  Moms- let’s get together on this one.  Just like there should be a hook on the back of every stall door for our purses, there NEEDS to be a hook near the diaper changing area.  I’ll do my part as an architect to lobby for these!]

So, we were able to start the tour rested and fed (and changed!) and that made for a much happier baby.  We also lucked out with two very nice gentlemen who carpooled to the site from the Virginia AIA office with us.  One was a Richmond native who told me lots about the Fan District and surrounding neighborhoods and the other entertained Mark in the back seat.  They didn’t seem to mind squeezing into my tiny vehicle made smaller by the car seat that takes over the back, and one even offered to carry Mark’s diaper bag (though, it is an Orla Kiely bag and what design-minded person wouldn’t want to carry that bag?  Dr. Jay doesn’t even mind carrying it)!

On to the Neutra house- okay, okay, it’s the Rice house by Neutra.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  First of all, it’s situated on an island.  An ISLAND!  On the James River.  How incredible is that?  We had to cross a bridge specifically built by the Rices for accessing the island.  

Here’s a view of the James from the drive leading up to the house.

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It was a gorgeous spring day.  Our tour guide was Bodil Hanneman, Director of the Foundation Board put together to preserve this amazing work of architecture.  She is also a personal friend of the Rice family (Walter Rice has passed away but his wife Inger is still living).  Here is Bodil Hanneman, who is also an architect.

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She explained that the Science Museum of Virginia acquired the house back in 1996 when the Rice family donated it.  It is the only house in Richmond built in the International Style.  It was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1999.  She has been working hard with a team not only to determine how best to proceed with renovations and repairs but also to help raise money for the cause.  She mentioned that one of the contractors told her that if they hadn’t intervened when they did, the house would have surely fallen within five years because it was in such a state of disrepair.  There was extensive water damage due to the poor drainage of the flat roofs. 

There were workers on the roof laying new waterproofing on the day of our tour.039

See the River out there?  I must mention that all these shots were taken by me while I had Mark on my other arm, so they are not my best work but I certainly tried to capture some details.  I don’t think there were any artificial light sources on at the time of our tour, so you can see how well this house receives daylight.

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All of the fireplaces were double-sided, this one to both the interior and exterior.

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This fireplace in the living area doubled with a fireplace in the master bedroom.  That’s a cork floor, by the way.

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Most of the furniture was built-in, a total work of design by Neutra.  He was known for getting to know his clients really well, and was said to want to “be in love” with them before he worked for them.  Apparently he spent a week with the Rices before he took on the design of their home.  He was reportedly not thrilled to be working in Richmond but was quite taken with the site available to him and that was one thing that swayed him.

Here are a few more interior shots.

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One side of the master closet which lead to the bathroom.  There were matching bathroom/closet sequences from the master bedroom, and the bathrooms each had sunken tubs.

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Here’s a shot in the dining area with the marble wall which extends from the interior to the exterior.

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See the glass?

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Mark absolutely loved that wall.

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He couldn’t stop touching it and got upset when I finally pulled him away.  It was Georgia marble.  What can I say, the boy has really good taste.

Some shots of the pool:

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Here are some of the stairs leading to it:

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You are not mistaken- that is a very treacherous pathway leading to the pool.  And though there will eventually be a railing along that rooftop balcony, there wasn’t one originally!

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I feel so fortunate to have been able to take this tour.  Having learned about houses like this all through school, I didn’t think I’d be able to see a Neutra house unless I took a trip to California.  Having one so close in Virginia is incredible and it makes me so happy that there is such an effort to preserve it.  I came away from this experience certain that Neutra was a true master of the plan.  Each space was so carefully thought out and developed.  It was by no means an enormous house, but Neutra made the most of every square foot and it of course felt more spacious because of all the glass and the fact that there was so much indoor/outdoor living.  That part may have made more sense in California, where Neutra was used to working.  Nonetheless, I have a wonderful memory of the day, as a mother and as an architect.

One last photo for you.  I won’t do this often, but I have to share this with you.

Mark charming our tour guide:

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Actually, I think he was charmed by all the zippers on her jacket, and maybe you had to be there, but it was a hilarious way to end the tour.

>the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time

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Sometimes I marvel at how completely behind I am on what’s going on in D.C.  Here’s the latest (to me) on the architecture scene:

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the Bubble addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also have the coolest website I have seen in a long time.  It’s seriously B.A.)

Here’s how the bubble works.

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Got that?

Basically, the inflatable membrane will be erected for one month each spring and fall (beginning possibly in October 2012) filling the void of the museum’s courtyard and acting as an auditorium, cafe and meeting place.  Read more about it here, which is where I read about it.  In the magazine I’ll probably stop receiving soon since I am letting my AIA membership lapse. 

Is anyone else worried about this bubble and the high-strength winds we tend to get around these parts?  Surely they must have considered this possibility.  Looks like they are employing both Wind Engineering consultants and Climatic Analysis consultants.

>Visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Last weekend we had a friend in town, and despite the snow storm on Saturday, we made the trek into D.C. to spend the afternoon at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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I have to admit, this museum hasn’t been high on my list to visit.  It’s one that though I wanted to experience, I knew it would be emotional and other D.C. sites always seemed to take precedence.  But my friend requested this museum, and frankly, it made a lot of sense to go on a snowy day.  The bitter weather of the day ended up being eerily appropriate for the subject.

I am still in awe of the experience.  I had no idea the museum was so well-designed.  It opened in 1993, before great design was really on my radar, so I never really knew what I was missing.  It was designed by James Ingo Freed, and as far as museums go, this was one of the best I have ever visited.  We spent three hours there, only in the permanent collection (there is a current exhibit there about Propaganda) and I think I read almost every placard.  I learned an incredible amount in such a short period, and I was emotionally drained.

There’s no photography allowed in the actual exhibits, but I was able to snap a few of the transitional spaces, which I think are really important to the impact of the museum.  This museum was really well-conceived.  Even on a snowy, winter day, there were a lot of visitors.  It’s not technically their high season (which is from March to August when passes are required) so I was amazed at how many other folks were present.

Without further adieu, here are some of my photos.  These next few are from the light-well in the center of the building.  Again, the snow was strangely appropriate when thinking of the conditions of the Holocaust.

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This one is looking down into the lower entrance level.  I couldn’t get over those guys in uniform (see below, on the stairs).  I thought they were character actors from the time-period and I was trying to figure out what the uniform might be representing.  I finally asked one of them where they were from.  Turns out they go to West Point and they were at the museum on a field trip.  Whoops.

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You see all these roofs from the walkway in between the levels, and incredible reminder of the many European cities affected by the Holocaust.

I wish I could have taken photos of some of the exhibits, but all I can say is that if you have time in D.C., this is a must-visit.  I’m really glad we were convinced to go.

Here are a few other photos of the snow in Alexandria this week, as I brace for the impending blizzard this weekend.  Maybe I’ll get to blog some more, but only after I dig myself out of the closet I plan to reorganize tonight.  I would show you “before” photos, but I’m too embarrassed of its state, so I’ll just blame the poor lighting conditions.

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The one above is my office, and that loading dock leads to the Ice House, which back in the day used to store ice.  Now it stores old drawings.